New Delhi, India – Shaista Shamin remembers the day she slapped the man who touched her inappropriately.
The 17-year-old lives in the Tiljala slum of Kolkata and had previously survived sexual assaults. But on this occasion, she stood up against her attacker.
“When I was very young, I couldn’t understand what was happening so I couldn’t say anything,” she told Al Jazeera.
“But, the harassment began to increase as I was growing up. I don’t understand why men do this.”
In an attempt to overcome abuse, Shamin has now joined a drama group led by Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman, an activist working with child sexual assault survivors.
Devburman’s drama therapy classes create awareness among teenage girls and boys of the slum.
“We are trying to get the children acquainted with acting out the problem. They can act, they can laugh about it, but ultimately this is the way to tell them that this kind of behaviour if it happens to you in real life is wrong,” Devburman, a survivor herself, told Al Jazeera.
“Throughout my childhood, I kept looking for a safe space. But it isn’t easy to talk about abuse in India.”
She was four years old when an older male relative sexually abused her.
“He molested me. I blanked out because I was so shocked. I could not believe that somebody who loved me so much had broken my trust. And I never spoke about it for the same reason … my family wouldn’t have believed me.”
The abuse continued until she was 19 years old, she says, adding that thousands of children across the country continue to suffer today.
In 2016, at least 36,022 cases were reported under India’s 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act law, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Suicide and self-harm
Psychiatrist Rima Mukherji works with survivors in Kolkata.
Attacks have not necessarily increased, she said, but more people are coming forward to report.
However, she told Al Jazeera: “I still think it is the tip of the iceberg. I would say 90 percent of the cases, or more, are still not being reported.”
Vinay Singh, a child rights activist, helps to run a support group in which writing is promoted as a way of therapy.
One child’s diary entry shown to Al Jazeera read: “I feel scared even when my own father touches me. When my father wakes me up in the morning, I am fearful … and wonder … why is he touching me? I cannot sleep any more and I feel upset with myself and ask myself why I am feeling uncomfortable with my father.”
A brother and cousin had been sexually assaulting the child – who has attempted suicide – from the age of three to 13.
Al Jazeera showed a copy of the diary entry to Mukherji, the psychiatrist.
“Most people actually have maladaptive coping skills if they have been sexually abused,” Mukherji said.
“Some feel very guilty. In order to punish themselves, they commit self-harm, because of this guilt. Self-harm gives them a sense of relief, they feel better. They feel that the pain is helping them.”
‘My aunt burst out laughing when I told her’
Several activists told Al Jazeera that the average Indian family structure is unable to deal with sexual abuse.
Because of family pressure, especially if the abuser is a relative, victims are not encouraged to speak up and are told to try and forget about the incident.
Devburman, the therapist who works with children in the slums, recalled how when she was eight years old, her aunt laughed at her when she tried to discuss her experience of abuse.
“I was abused by the caretaker of the building that my father lived in,” she said. “The caretaker took me downstairs to an area which was isolated, and tried to rape me. When I spoke with my aunt about it, she literally burst out laughing. She said, ‘What did you do to make him touch you?'”
Devburman has also written in a journal as a way of therapy.
“It helps me not be suicidal, which I’ve been for the longest time of my entire life. I self-harm, I have a lot of anger issues,” she said. “And it is misdirected anger. Why should I be angry with myself?
“The journal entries help me get the anger out in a constructive fashion. I use it to heal myself because at some point the hard work of healing has to be done by you.”
Devburman’s healing process has inspired other child sexual abuse survivors, including 29-year-old Abhik Mukherji.
Last year, he recorded a video clip about his sexual abuse and posted it online.
“Society, in general, perceives men as abusers,” he told Al Jazeera. “They cannot even accept the fact that a man can be abused. People kept saying, ‘You are a man, how could you have been abused?'”
When he was around five years old and living with his family in the UK, Mukherji was regularly abused by a childminder.
Later, as a teenager, he was sexually assaulted by schoolchildren.
The experiences made Mukherji feel increasingly isolated, affecting his studies and relationships.
Today, Mukherji has moved forward. He is now a trained counsellor and works with sexual abuse survivors.
Devburman, Mukherji and other survivors use social media to campaign against sexual abuse.
Personal safety education, they also believe, should be mandatory at all Indian schools.
“I want to provide a safe space to them so that they can talk about their problems in a non-judgemental, non-hostile environment,” Mukherji said.